|Title||Once Free from Nobel Prize Complex, Korea to be Closer to the Prizes|
|Department||Department of Communications||Registration Date||2015-10-11||Hits||2124|
Once Free from Nobel Prize Complex, Korea to be Closer to the Prizes
Maeil Business Newspaper (October 11, 2015)
Every October, before the announcement of Nobel Prize winners, excitement is felt across the Korean scientific community. Many of them hope that this time might be different, praying for the first Korean Nobel Prize winner. But the announcement always crushes their hopes and brings feelings of envy and discouragement instead. This October feels especially disappointing because our two neighbors, Japan and China, celebrated Nobel laureates of their own. With one in Physiology or Medicine and another in Physics this year, Japan now has 21 Nobel winners in the sciences and in China it was the first time a mainland scientist became a Nobel recipient. Even Koreans who have no interest in basic science have begun to criticize the state of Korean science for failing to produce single Nobel winner, calling for something to be done.
Recently, I met with the newly elected president of RIKEN, Hiroshi Matsumoto in Kyoto. RIKEN is Japan's largest institute for basic research and has made enormous contributions to Japan's scientific development since its foundation in 1917. The tradition of basic research in Japan that started with the institute almost 100 years ago explains the country's prowess in science. Nobel Prizes for science usually honor achievements made a few decades ago. As a result of intensive investment, talent nurturing and risk taking beginning in the 1980s, Japanese scientists have been named as Nobel winners over the past straight years. Nothing of great significance can be achieved overnight. Only countries which have made constant investment enjoy the honor of Nobel Prizes in basic science.
Let's put aside envy or rivalry and reflect on what science in Korea has been through. Korea has no Nobel winners in science because it got a late start. Proper investment in science began in the late 1990s. The Institute for Basic Science, RIKEN's Korean counterpart, was established less than 4 years ago. Funding for research and its outcomes has increased in terms of volume, but we shouldn't let it blind us from the reality that our research is still in its infancy. Considering the history, experience and support which more advanced countries have accumulated for basic science we have just taken a baby step. Almost 40% of the Korean government's R&D funding, which is supposed to go to basic research, is actually spent on applied science. We should not overlook that this year's Nobel Prize in Physics recognized the research which was conducted at Super-Kamiokande, a large-scale underground observatory. Without sustained investment, the facility would have remained a deserted mine.
A research culture is also a critical factor. We need to ask, "Do research environments in Korea encourage scientists to freely pursue their curiosity and ideas?", or "Do we embrace eccentricity and differences for a maximum originality in research?" The answer to these questions is "no", unfortunately. A 2013 report from IMD, a top-ranked global business school based in Switzerland, indicated that Korea's talent leak ranked 37th out of 60 countries. Young Korean scientists, in particular, opt for conducting research in the U.S. where maximum autonomy is guaranteed and they can be free from the pressure for short-term achievements. Reluctance to accept weird or eccentric (but maybe creative) ideas is also stifling young, budding scientists. A 90% success rate of research projects in Korea is a clear indicator that too much emphasis is being placed on tangible results. Since appointed as the president of IBS, I have always made myself available for conversations with young scientists. They have convinced me that they need a research environment where they are allowed to freely pursue their curiosity. A culture which respects autonomy and creativity can attract the best talent to science and encourage them to venture into a new territory of research.
The Korean scientific community, according to many globally renowned scientists, needs two things: uninterrupted support and respect for researchers' autonomy.
"Korea should focus more on empowering researchers than emphasizing topics for the development of basic science. Guaranteeing them sufficient time and autonomy would generate the results Korea wants," said Martin Stratmann, the president of the Max Planck Society in an interview with a newspaper.
Richard J Roberts, the 1993 Nobel laureate for Physiology or Medicine, recently published an interesting article titled "10 Simple Rules to Win a Nobel Prize" in an open access scientific journal, PLOS. He made some light-hearted comments such as collaborators should be no more than two-because the maximum number of co-winners is three. But his most important message is Rule No. 1, "Never Start Your Career by Aiming for a Nobel Prize." He tells aspiring Nobel winners, "just focus on doing the very best science that you can. Ask good questions, use innovative methods to answer them, and look for those unexpected results."
Before asking the question, "When can Korea have the first Nobel winner?" we may have to learn how to be patient and wait. What scientists need is support for their pursuit of curiosity and originality not the pressure for prizes or results.